Between the sneezing office colleague and the sniffling child, it seems like germs are inescapable this time of year. Even with the increased likelihood of illness during the winter months, you can take some simple steps to stay well and avoid getting a cold or the flu.
Colds and influenza are brought on by viruses that cause infections of the respiratory tract - the nose, throat, air passageways and lungs. These infections are contagious and can be spread from person to person. Every year, the seasonal flu affects 5 to 20 percent of U.S. citizens and about 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related illnesses.
Most experts believe the flu virus is spread through the air, traveling on expelled droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. It also lurks on surfaces, in the same way cold viruses get passed from person to person. Are you shaking hands a lot, maybe sharing a keyboard? Avoid touching your face until you can wash with soap and hot water or wipe with an alcohol-based hand cleanser. In addition to conscientious hand cleansing, these tips can help fend off and avoid spreading a cold or the flu:
- Eat healthy, stay hydrated, exercise and get enough sleep to promote a strong immune system
- Cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow, not your hand
- Clean shared surfaces like tables, toys and door handles with an anti-bacterial disinfectan
- Avoid touching your eyes and nose, common routes of germ entry
- Be cautious about food buffets and similar settings where germs can be spread from utensils and food items
- Stay away from sick people if you can, especially if you have a weakened immune system
- Get a flu shot
The best way to protect against the flu virus is to be vaccinated. The vaccine changes each year depending on what flu strains research has shown will be most prevalent in the population. A cold typically is a mild illness, but flu can cause serious complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and even death. This year's flu season started early, with numerous cases reported in several states as early as October. Peak flu season usually comes in January or February, but individual exposure is unpredictable.